Tranquil villages offer trip into past alongside bustling metropolis, writes Neda Vanovac.

Dizzyingly tall skyscrapers, countless shopping malls, congested streets: I knew Hong Kong was packed with them.

But ramshackle tin houses on stilts and peaceful waterways in a village so quiet you can cycle through it with no fear of imminent death beneath the wheels of roaring traffic? I hadn't expected that.

Hong Kong is the ultimate chameleon city, with enough on offer to give travellers exactly what they want, whenever they find themselves looking for it, at whatever the budget.

And so if you tire of the city, a completely different way of life can be found on neighbouring Lantau Island.


On the western side of the island, at the bottom of a steeply winding mountain road, is Tai O, the oldest fishing village in Hong Kong.

Harking back to an ancient way of life are the knockabout wooden and tin houses on stilts over the tidal mudflats, nestled so close together they seem to overlap, where you can lose yourself for hours wandering the narrow wooden walkways.

Home to the Tanka people, Tai O has small shopfronts selling all manner of seafood, such as dried fish, shrimp paste and some kind of puffed-up squid that looks like a balloon animal. Children whiz past 300-year-old temples on their bikes, and family-run restaurant balconies jut over the water as locals paddle by in boats.

As wonderful as it is, I must confess: the peaceful charm of Tai O is not a secret, not since a 5.7km cable car was built to get tourists up to Lantau peak in less than 30 minutes.

That means people flooding the island to see the 34m Tian Tan Buddha and the century-old Po Lin monastery can reach the village more easily than ever, but those who take a local bus down from the totally artificial Ngong Ping village to Tai O early in the day will be amply rewarded by a pattern of life that feels a world away from the bustling metropolis just a short train trip to the north.

Hong Kong coastlines are truly dazzling, especially on blue-sky days, and hikers who appear in miniature trekking the mountain path far below the cable car can often be seen pausing to survey the breathtaking views of the peaks out to the South China Sea.

A 20-minute train ride back to Hong Kong island is a fun way to blow your own mind as you emerge from the subway once more among those gleaming towers of commerce, bright pink taxis swooping past as the clang of endless construction rings in your ears.

There's plenty of old to be discovered among the new here, though, and to sniff out the less obvious stories of the city, it's best to find a city tour. If you can eat your way through it, so much the better: that's my philosophy, and I recommend the Hong Kong Foodie tasting tour of Central and Sheung Wan.

This is how to eat like a local, I learn, as we visit one family-run restaurant after another, some beneath the street, some up narrow staircases behind a butchery, some tucked away between antique stores on Hollywood Rd.

Each restaurant we visit specialises in something: slurping wonton noodle soup and knocking elbows with bankers, savouring eight types of meat (pigeon, anyone?) at the Dragon Restaurant, refreshing ourselves with sugar cane juice in the exquisitely tiled 1930s art deco store of Kung Lee juices.

Delicious freshly baked egg custard tarts from the Hei Lee cake shop become my daily staple as I try to gobble them down without burning my mouth with the piping-hot filling, as the pastry flakes away in my hands.

Wandering through Central, my nostrils are assaulted by the distinctive odour of the remains of the oldest wet market in the city, running along Graham St. In two years it will be moved inside a new purpose-built building, ending an era of dirty and chaotic streets choked with foot traffic and rotting vegetables, replaced by something altogether newer and cleaner, though not necessarily better.

Here I enjoy watching the street theatre play out featuring Hong Kong's smaller inhabitants: a cat dips its head into a bag of dried scallops while the shopkeeper is distracted; a fish makes a last-minute bid for freedom, throwing itself desperately on to the footpath as a woman laden with designer shopping bags brushes past, not seeming to notice the fishmonger expertly flipping it back into a tank.

After long days of roaming the streets and being dazzled by new discoveries (Incredible dim sum! Tranquil bird gardens! Quirky street art! The terror of being trapped in surging rush-hour crowds!) having an oasis of calm in Hong Kong is essential, so choose a hotel wisely.

Without one, the city might just swallow you whole.



Cathay Pacific offers twice daily flights from Auckland direct to Hong Kong. Return Economy fares start from $1565, and Premium Economy from $3105.